Four Fictional Villains and Their Real-Life Inspirations

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Oftentimes bad guys are our favorites in a story, but not all bad guys are created equal. Where does the inspiration for these fictional villains come from? How were the most-famous fake criminals shaped by reality? Here are some fictional criminals, killers and ne’er-do-wells, and their real-life inspirations.

Jean Valjean

Who he is: The protagonist in Les Miserables, small-time thief, superb singer

And in real life:



Jean Valjean was derived from Eugene Francois Vidocq. Other than inspiring Jean, he also inspired his rival Javert, Sherlock Holmes, and pretty much every other fictional detective ever written. Just like Valjean, Vidocq was a criminal who escaped from prison and was on the run for almost 20 years. He eventually made a plea bargain with the police: in lieu of jail time he would use his criminal mind (and past) to fight crime.  He was so successful at solving crimes that his name went down in history, inspiring literary characters for decades after. There’s even the Vidocq society– people who dedicate themselves to solving old, unsolved cases.

Sweeney Todd

Who he is: Barber, murderer, questionable meat supplier

And in real life:


A Sweeney Todd-type character was first described in an 1824 publication called The Tell Tales. In it the author described a wig maker/barber who would slice his patrons’ throats, steal their valuables, and then grind them up into meat pies with the help of a local baker. This was allegedly inspired by a book from French detective Joseph Fouché, although the book is lost to history so no one can truly be sure. Then, in 1836 Charles Dickens included references to a Todd-type character in his Pickwick Papers (a pie maker who uses cats as meat), and again in 1843’s Martin Chuzzlewit (a man describes meat pies that are made of people). He first appeared as “Sweeney Todd the Demon Barber of Fleet Street” in 1852.

Law & Order

What it is: Longest running crime drama of all time, multiple versions, the “chung, chung” sound!

And in real life:


Law and Order debuted in 1990, wanting to show positives of the American justice system.  Each episode is split in two parts: the crime (Law) and the trial (Order). The show featured everything from murderers and serial killers to human trafficking. In true “ripped from the headlines” fashion, each episode can be traced to some form of real-life trial or crime.

The Miniature Killer

Who she is: Serial killer, family girl, model house enthusiast

And in real life:


One of the creepiest, most interesting killers in the entire CSI: Las Vegas series was the miniature killer.  She is a girl who would create crime scene dioramas in breathtaking detail and send them to the CSI crew BEFORE she committed the murder. Her story was stretched over three seasons before finally coming to a close (I won’t spoil how). Her inspiration was not from a killer, but from a way real-life CSIs train new officers.  Frances Glessner Lee created the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death as a way to train Baltimore homicide detectives to notice details in crime scenes. It was called the “nutshell” studies because it was designed so the entire crime, motive, and solution could be put into a nutshell.

Fictional Villains Bonus: Juan “TwoFace” Rivera-Valdez

Valdez wasn’t the inspiration for the famed Batman villain Two Face; it was the other way around.  The drug enforcer was arrested and his mug shot was released:


Unlike the “real” Two Face, who got his scars from an acid bath to the face, Valdez got his from a car accident. With a “lifeimitating-art” case such as this, it makes you wonder if he also has a two-sided coin that dictates his decisions.

These villains may be inspired by real people, but the darkest thoughts of fiction are no one’s but our own.


London McGuire is a freelance writer and blogger for In addition to the horror and thriller genres, she enjoys writing about sports, great food and anything related to television or movies. Follow her on Twitter @londonmcguire.

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